Enter the Raccoon

I would never have known about the existence of Enter the Raccoon if it wasn’t for Beatriz Hausner herself, who came in as a plenary speaker for the Vic One program. Surrealism is clearly not the most popular genre, and the science-oriented students could be seen smirking quietly. But it was undeniable that, once she began to read, a trance-like quality in Hausner’s voice took hold of the entire auditorium. In that moment, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was the way in which she read or the words themselves. I only knew that I wanted to read more of her work and see if I could experience such a feeling on my own.

The results were indeed replicable, although I did learn one significant thing: Enter the Raccoon isn’t the type of book you’d want to read on a subway ride, for the wandering eyes of nearby passengers might occasionally be shocked by what they come across. The collection traces the love affair of the narrator and a human-like raccoon, with a particular emphasis on the sexual side of the relationship.

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The prose poems interchange: a piece that furthers the reader’s understanding of the love affair may be immediately followed by a poem that has a very journal-like quality to it, discussing things such as artwork in a museum, a popular Chilean TV show, or the way in which raccoons act as carriers for diseases. It’s strange to describe and feels equally strange while reading, yet there is an allure to the poems that makes it impossible to put the book down.

Despite the raccoon’s description as not only human-like in stature but also possessing several mechanical limbs, the relationship he shares with the narrator is not far from the kinds one might encounter on a daily basis. It is possible that one might have experienced something similar in the past.

The wordplay and riddles that the two lovers exchange are perhaps tamer than the act of leaving and staying that categorizes modern relationships. There is always a sense of sitting on the very edge, wondering whether the relationship will continue or end, and on what note the latter would happen. Most significantly, there is an element of nostalgia present even when Raccoon and the speaker are together, as if there is a much greater emotional and psychological rift between them.

While this half of the collection may be less accessible to some readers, the other half makes up for it quite easily. Hausner mentions Amy Winehouse several times, and the event of her death is recent enough for the impact to still be palpable. These moments also act as an invitation for the reader to take a glimpse at the poet’s internal thought process.

The technique of automatic writing in these rather personal and at times rather informative pieces is what brings out the other side of surrealism; the much less outlandish one that counteracts the sheer bizarreness of reading about the relationship of a human woman and a human-like raccoon. These other poems still manage to transport the reader into a deeper exploration of the self-conscious by remaining rooted in present day scenarios and factual events.

Either way, Enter the Raccoon never stops exerting its weird charm. It also isn’t the type of collection that one can easily pick up and dive into. Rather, it requires a proper mood or mindset (or a ridiculous sugar high, take your pick). It successfully demonstrates that the fantastically bizarre isn’t as bizarre as one may think, successfully pairing it with real-life examples that create a transient state that is no less odd but enticing.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

The Ship Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us: A Review of Passengers

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This review contains spoilers!

In the realm of inferior movies there is a special category reserved for movies that are unsatisfactory despite their captivating and deceptively convincing trailers. Passengers is a new addition to this category, for despite its adrenaline-filled trailers that bombarded TV screens several weeks before its release, it leaves its audience with a bitter aftertaste that makes one think, “I could’ve written a much better space-romance than that.”

As the space-romance begins, the viewer finds themselves instantly thrown into a tumultuous story aboard the starship “Avalon,” which is flying through space on autopilot, navigating cosmic debris and asteroids. It is one of these asteroids that breaks through the defensive shield causing the ship to “rock”—already a rather unconvincing plot detail considering that the ship seems to have flown seamlessly for 30 years—and wakes Jim Preston from his hibernation pod.

Considering this is yet another space movie featuring Chris Pratt, one might expect him to be somewhat akin to Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy: clever, quirky, quick on his feet. However, when creating Preston’s character, it is as though the producers forgot all these things, resulting in him being, conveniently, an engineer that lacks a personality. His role does not go far beyond attempting to break open the door to the command center and to ultimately assume roles as a welder, botanist, jeweller, and stereotypical I-will-save-the-world hero. The only backstory he receives is that he could barely afford the ticket, but decided to leave Earth in an attempt to start a new life.

After Preston struggles over the course of a year with being alone on the ship and even contemplating suicide, the movie comes to what is the biggest and most problematic aspect of the movie: Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Aurora Lane. It isn’t so much the fact that Aurora is, like Preston, a monochrome character, or the fact that she’s yet another example of a writer who writes to achieve fame (and also happens to be from New York, and have a rich and well-known writer for a father). The problem is more in the way in which she appears in the plot.

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This is where the biggest source of anger and disappointment lies. The trailers present Passengers as a romantic story of two people who happened to wake up together and find themselves trying to save the spaceship, and in doing so, fall in love. In reality however, it is Preston who “wakes up” Aurora Lane by meddling with her hibernation pod.

Preston’s explanation for this is the inability to cope with his loneliness—his only other constant companion being the robot bartender Arthur—and despite how horrible his actions are, one can understand the motivation behind them. However, the way in which he specifically “chooses” Aurora—by accidentally coming across her pod, finding her attractive, looking up an interview with her and declaring that she is the woman of his dreams—raises eyebrows and exasperates.

This development overshadows the rest of the movie, and drastically changes the atmosphere. The viewer is put in the position of judging Preston’s decision. We’re left wondering when he’ll tell her, and then choosing sides when the truth comes out, and ultimately imposing a “final verdict” depending on which character’s side they choose.

However, even the morality issues of the movie are overshadowed by the scientific inaccuracies, despite the absolute frequency of the moral dilemmas. It is a movie that exasperates not only those of science and engineering backgrounds but even general viewers having some knowledge in the field. Examples, such as flying past a burning planet, catch the eye of an audience who know that in real life the ship would be pulled towards the planet by its force of gravity.

Other glaring errors in logic are difficult to forgive even in a sci-fi fantasy movie: scenes such as Aurora floating in a water bubble and not drowning, or Preston surviving a massive flame without even minor damage to his space suit. It goes without saying that some semblance of scientific law and common sense is appreciated. For this reason, scenes like the ending lose their sentimental touch, instead provoking a stream of questions like “wait, what is that tree growing on? And how are all these animals surviving?”

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The one positive of this movie, which can also be interpreted as a negative by some, is how easily it opens up the debate on morals and what constitutes romance (although the faulty science still looms in the background as another big topic of discussion). While Preston is easily criticisable for his decision to awaken Aurora, one can counter by saying that she got the adventure she was hoping for, a bigger one than spending a 240 days in hibernation flying to a space colony. The way the viewer interprets the movie is a demonstration of their thought processes.

The movie is viewed differently by different age groups. Teenagers and young adults might see it as a destruction of dreams and the snatching away of possibilities, similar to the way in which Aurora often accused Preston of doing so. Some adults, however, will argue that it is a movie that counters the ‘dream big’, ‘dream without limits’ ideology by showing that not all people can have their dreams fulfilled; a fact that is very much a part of reality and that which is still reluctantly acknowledged by the entertainment industry.

What I got out of this movie is that capitalism is scary, business comes first and foremost, and that if I were in the movie I wouldn’t get onto the Avalon even if they paid me. (Also that writers aren’t always weak and can actually swing sledgehammers or beat-up the jerks that ruin their lives.) Other than that, Passengers was a source of disappointment and emotional discomfort, with a bland storyline, shallow characters, a “romance” that is neither believable nor right, and an ending that makes one reach for a pen and paper and yell “I can do better!”

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A Charming New Chapter of the Wizarding World

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Some people may understand I say that the first time I saw the commercial for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it felt very much like deciding whether to go and order another cup of coffee. On the one hand, you know you’ve already had several and so drinking another will probably ruin the pleasant effect, but on the other hand the thought is so appealing, and it looks so damn good that you can’t help but wonder if this one might be even better than all the rest.

At first, the movie seemed like just another cash-grab. And when J.K. Rowling announced that she plans to turn it into a series, with five films rather than the initially planned three, I have to admit it felt like another example of an author milking their success.

But seeing the movie turned out to be much different, and the feeling of relaxation, enjoyment, and overall lightness after exiting the theatre made the verdict quite clear: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very good. The adulthood missing from Harry Potter is present in Fantastic Beasts.

Fantastic Beasts transports the viewer to New York in 1926, and it is the wizard and magizoolistic Newt Scamander who serves as our protagonist. He is just as British as Harry, and as tussled and quirky, but that is where their similarities end. Unlike Harry, who we first met at 10-years-old, Newt begins the series as an adult and has the knowledge to prove it. He never sets out to flagrantly display his intellect, but instead spends the movie content with inwardly curating it out of the joy that it brings him.

The main conflict of the film is a little formulaic, part Pandora’s box and part comical-accident-turned-catastrophic. The magical suitcase Newt brings into NYC ends up switched with a suitcase full of pastries carried by the No-Maj (the American term for Muggles) Jacob Kowalski, who accidentally releases several of the magical creatures within it. One of these animals is the adorable Niffler, which has the appearance of an echidna and the personality of a magpie, amassing all the gold and jewels it finds into its bottomless pouch.

And thus begins a hunt for the missing creatures throughout the city, with the help of Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein, her Legilimens (telepathic) sister “Queenie,” and Jacob.

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Right from the start one finds the distinction Rowling draws between the North American and European wizardly worlds. From the use of terminology for regular humans (muggles vs. no-maj), to the American wizards governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which is headed by a president. There is even a squabble at one point between Newt and Queenie over which wizarding school is the best in the world. Of course, Newt represents Hogwarts while Queenie argues for the recently introduced and still unfamiliar Ilvermorny.

Some aspects of the world-building cross the geographical borders, such as the Deathly Hallows sigil and the name dropping of Albus Dumbledore. Others transcend time and begin to create a sense of interconnectedness with the future, occurring in the form of a photograph Newt carries with him of Leta Lestrange, as he later admits, a past love from his Hogwarts years that ended poorly.

These differences and connections within the plot cannot compare to the most important difference of all: that of the quality of the story. Rowling presents a much more measured and sophisticated approach to magic, making it feel magical and all-encompassing in a way that doesn’t bombard one with a dazzling show of gimmicks and terminology as the Harry Potter series did. Instead time is taken to show the inside of Newt’s suitcase, to explore the nooks and crannies of it and develop a personal attachment to the creatures living inside it, giving a detailed example of the Undetectable Extension charm which was previously only vaguely shown in Hermione’s bag.

There is also a greater sense of order—or lack thereof—and consequence in the movie. The character of Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an order that that fights to draw New York’s attention to the existence of witches, adds a touch of urgency to the story. She was a reminder that the threat of exposure and negative influence of no-majs on the wizards was just as significant as the threat wizards posed to each other.

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I can find few qualms in the movie, and even those are more technical than they are glaring plot errors. The obsession with darkness and dark scenes grew to be a bit much at certain points, making some scenes difficult to make out visually. The casting of Johnny Depp was another reason for confusion. His appearance in the film and just in general were unpleasant, by the bleached hair, eyebrows, and moustache, while his last words “Will we die just a little?” were delivered in a muffled manner that was also contextually disappointing.

These had little impact on the movie, which was a well-crafted story of adult wizards and witches from beginning to end. It did have the quality of a prologue to it, and some may find it to lack action while stressing the informative tone, but that is to be expected of a movie that is not only part of a series but is also introducing a new side of the wizarding world.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them balances the familiar with the new, the former used more as a strategy to make the viewer more comfortable with the latter. It isn’t a crutch but rather a reminder that there is always room to create new worlds, characters, and plots, which is exactly what Rowling was able to achieve. The fact that she wrote the screenplay gave the movie a quality of confidence and authenticity, strengthening the sense of magic and wonder it already possessed.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

A Step in the Right Direction: A Review of Disney’s “Moana”

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We are slowly entering the age of the reinvention of Disney.

Disney has boasted about including diversity in their films for a few years now, but still, Moana came as something unexpected to me. I suppose I didn’t actually expect anything from the big talk of how Disney was trying to push boundaries, and finally strive for more accurate cultural representation of non-white/Western European cultures.The trailers for Moana were ambiguous at best, and the scandal with the Maui Halloween costume at the Disney store was not reassuring.

But having promised my brother we’d go see it in theatres, I nonetheless told myself to remain optimistic. Moana could be different—it could be excellent.

Now I cannot speak to how other audiences received Moana, or how truly accurate or representational it was of Polynesian culture, but the first thing that struck me about the movie was how much it displayed a genuine effort to research and present its findings.

Some Disney movies, like Beauty and the Beast and Tangled, take a fairytale approach in which the story begins with a narrator, either ominous or involved. Moana does this as well, but chooses instead to present an origin story rooted in mythology, telling the story of the island goddess Te Fiti and how her heart was stolen by the mischievous Maui. The viewers soon sees that it is a grandmother telling the story to a group of children, of which only tiny Moana is enthralled by the terrifying details.

There is something very down to earth and homely about this beginning sequence. The movie presents, for the first time, a glimpse of childhood story time that is familiar to many of the audience members, capturing the uniqueness of the heroine without driving it home with a giant flashing neon sign.

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Concept art for Moana by Ryan Lang between Moana and Te Fiti

Moana is, in many ways, a movie of firsts. Moana’s adventurous spirit isn’t presented as an anomaly but rather as a return to ancestry and a past way of life which has been forgotten. The movie aims for a message of remembering one’s roots rather than going down the stereotypical path of having a heroine that’s different just because that is what is expected.

It’s a movie where, for the first time, the animal companion is arguably there not only for comic relief. Instead, we appreciate that other, subtler, line of thought presented through Heihei the chicken, that patience and love towards someone who’s different is a powerful thing. The story is also very much a “hero’s journey” archetype that leaves no room for a romantic side plot, another first in the long line of Disney’s princess ancestry, with only Mulan and Merida coming close.

One of the things I appreciated though was how “meta” Disney decided to be, in two moments both facilitated by Maui. The first occurs on a canoe, when Maui calls Moana a princess after she says that she’s the daughter of the chief. Moana corrects him, and  he replies: “it’s practically the same thing…if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” It’s a cheeky and fun jab at the Disney line, especially since we all know Moana is ineviatebly going to be part of their “Disney Princess” line.

The second meta moment is about halfway through the movie, when Moana and Maui fine the entrance to the realm of monsters. An exasperated Maui asks Moana to not break into song and dance (even though he did this earlier himself). An added bonus is the scene where Maui signs Moana’s oar with Heihei’s beak, declaring that “when you do it with a bird, it’s called tweeting.” Perhaps Disney has become bolder in poking fun at itself and modernity. It is another sign of progress, one that added optimism.

As far as musical Disney goes, one will certainly find memorable songs, but thankfully nothing as out-of-context and catchy as “Let It Go”. The soundtrack is worth its own separate exploration, particularly with the original and cover versions of “How Far I’ll Go” and, even more memorable for me, the Rock’s tap-worthy “You’re Welcome”.

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Still from the movie, depicting baby Moana

Sitting here now and thinking over the whole movie again, it’s easy to come up with all the movie’s strengths—it had many of them. Even small aspects of the story that existed for driving the plot were adorable and memorable, such as the Kakamoras and their elaborate pirate ship.

Right after finishing the movie though, I didn’t quite know what I felt or thought about it, apart from the general agreement that I liked it. I didn’t cry the way many people swore I would, perhaps because I’m not emotional at the same things. Yet this hesitation and uncertainty shouldn’t be taken as a negative sign, in fact, quite the opposite. It is an indication that for once, we have been presented with a princess-like character that doesn’t fall into one of the polarized regions of the spectrum as either a “I like her and relate to her” or “no, she doesn’t speak to me/I disliked her for ‘x’ reason”.

Moana lines up a carefully conceived and perfectly paced storyline, characters that are so well-balanced that one almost hopes they’re perfect even in their shortcomings, and a visual culture that is rich and vibrant without being exoticized. Moana is a step in the right direction, a movie that is hopefully an indicator of the way Disney plans to head.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

3 Movies To Change Up Your Holiday Viewing List

It’s that time of year again when people are pulling out boxes with Christmas ornaments and fairy lights, and getting into the spirit of the holidays with nostalgic, classical holiday movies. But while some might say they grew up watching movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Elf, or even The Nightmare Before Christmas, I’ll admit I never did.

It’s hard to say whether it’s the result of being a first-generation child who, despite moving to Canada, still grew up on European stories and movies, or whether I simply didn’t like them. The holidays for me have always been marked by a rather different set of movies. Now, these non-traditional films are what I associate with winter and the magic and spirit of the holidays.

So whether you’re looking for something different to spice up a yearly tradition, or are just generally curious, here are three alternative speculative films to watch these holidays:

1. Tři oříšky pro Popelku (translated: Three Wishes for Cinderella; 1973)

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Still from the movie Three Wishes for Cinderella

Though it is considered a holiday classic in some European countries, Three Wishes for Cinderella has nothing to do with the holidays. The only Christmas aura you’ll get from this film is the the stunning snowy Czech landscape, and the evergreen trees.

Three Wishes for Cinderella tells the story of a male servant, who is sent to a marketplace to pick up fabric for the stepmother and stepsister of the classic Cinderella tale. After asking Cinderella what she’d like for him to bring back, the servant is told to bring the first thing that falls on his nose. This happens to be a trio of hazelnuts which, when cracked open throughout the movie, reveals a new outfit that Cinderella needs.

The movie features a rather sassy and badass Cinderella (for her time period, at least), who is nostalgic for the days she used to go hunting with her father, and even mocks the prince when she meets him in the woods. Viewers also get to see a bit of the prince’s character, as opposed to the very bland and cookie-cutter Disney version.

Three Wishes for Cinderella brings with it a quality that’s very much in the style of European fairy and folktales. It takes its time to create an atmosphere rather than simply powering through the story. And the best part is the main theme in the soundtrack, which has a light, twinkling quality to it, guaranteed to make you imagine galloping on a horse through large piles of snow, feeling the pleasant crispness of winter all around.

2. A Little Snow Fairy Sugar (anime series; 2001-2002)

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Still from the anime A Little Snow Fairy Sugar

While the most well-known anime series focus on creating elaborate fantasy worlds and introducing viewers to a cast of emotionally complex characters, A Little Snow Fairy Sugar quietly tiptoes the line between the child and adult realms.

Luckily for you, A Little Snow Fairy Sugar is a short series, so it’s perfect to blaze through this winter season. The show is twelve episodes long, and tells the story of a highly organized and studious girl named Saga, who lives in a small German town with her grandmother and works in a coffee shop. But one day everything changes when Saga discovers a tiny starving fairy and feeds her a waffle, and meets a snow fairy apprentice named Sugar.

Beyond being simply adorable, what with Sugar’s addiction to Belgian waffles and the constant mishaps she gets into with fellow friends Salt and Pepper, the series also addresses themes of growing up and dealing with the loss of a loved one. At times, it is hard not to get emotional while watching. The show has a natural and heartfelt tone to it that make the series stand out in the anime genre.

Sugar’s constant practicing with conjuring snowflakes makes winter feel like it can be found at any time of the year, but also gives a different—and cuter—association to the season. If anime is for you, be sure to give this series a shot!

3. Vechera na Hutare Bliz Dikanki (translation: Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka; musical, 2001)

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Still from the movie Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka

For a rather long time, there was a different kind of holiday tradition that developed in Russia and Ukraine: that of the musical.

While this trend lasted for over a decade, only the first four or so were genuinely any good. However, I’d argue that the best is the one based on the work of Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, called Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.

Set on New Year’s Eve in the small village of Dikanka, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka is the story of a blacksmith named Vakula, who is rejected and mocked by the beautiful Oksana. She gives him a challenge: he can marry her only if he brings back the red shoes worn by the tsarina in St. Petersburg. While the task initially seems impossible, a lucky run-in with the Devil himself proves to be helpful and Vakula, after some blackmailing, is flown across the night sky to St. Petersburg to bring back the shoes and marry Oksana.

The story will most likely sound bizarre to people outside of the culture, but the film does a pretty good job in both presenting and stressing the importance of New Year’s Eve, as opposed to Christmas Day, in Ukrainian culture. It is considered to be the most magical night of the year when all the magical forces come out to play. This version features a talented cast and hilarious lyrics (for those who don’t mind quickly learning Russian/Ukrainian, or can find a version with subtitles), adding a touch of comedy and music to a beloved cultural classic.

So, if you’re still in search of some new and different films to change up your holiday movie list, be sure to give some of the wildcards above a try. And happy holidays to you all!

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Navigating A Sea of Literature With Sjon’s “From The Mouth Of The Whale”

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image source: amazon.com

“Here is another manifestation of insanity: people are united in actions that they would neither have known how to do nor dreamed of doing until seized by madness.”

~ From the Mouth of the Whale, Sjón

Sometimes you get tired of reading books in a specific genre, books by well-known authors, or whatever books are currently popular. Sometimes, the desire to read something different can be all-consuming. And in the sea of existing literature, that isn’t an impossible desire. Though, for best results, such a book should be found entirely by accident.

That is exactly how I came across Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, hailing from a country whose literature is on the peripheries when it comes to attention and recognition: Iceland. The summary seems straightforward enough: Iceland, 1635—Jónas Pálmason, a self-taught healer and academic, is branded a heretic and shunned by society, forced to seek refuge with his wife Sigga and survive the country’s harsh conditions. Beginning with a prelude where Lucifer has a confrontation with the Father, the book is set up to make the reader assume that the story will follow a rather predictable, linear storyline, with the possible interweaving of religious motifs on the side.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The only clear formatting in the book lies in the seven sections into which it is divided. Otherwise, the reader is constantly being forced to remember that this is a story about Jónas, as opposed to a reflection on religion or the culture’s practices and ideologies in the 17th century. At a certain point, however, the certainty wears away as the captivating narrative takes effect.

Religion is the most dominant theme, with frequent indications of just how attached the Icelanders were to God and the Christian faith. What’s interesting is the way in which even religion seems unable to escape the dark and complex nature of existence. The second section begins with a rather unusual retelling of the story of Adam: how he grew so lustful that he began to desire his own shadow, and how God took it away while thinking of how to solve the problem. Where most books tend to focus on the idealized and sanitized versions of Bible stories, Sjón is clearly comfortable with presenting their darker side, the conflicts and dirt that may in fact have happened but that humanity has chosen to erase in an attempt to idealize them.

The novel’s biggest strength is how skilfully it weaves magical realism into an otherwise realistic and convincing narrative. Eventually there’s nothing surprising about hearing the story of how Jónas tried to exorcise the ghost of a young boy and almost drowned in a stream of excrement, or the vision he has of a being ripping out his fifth rib which, when placed on the doorstep, reminds Jonas of his wife—who has been standing there the whole time. Other incidents, like his reveal that the King of Denmark’s prized “unicorn horn” was actually a narwhal’s, rely on historical facts that nonetheless maintain a touch of the otherworldly. The same is the case with the almanac-like “entries” appearing at varying stages throughout the novel, providing dictionary-like definitions that sound like something taken from historical records. Their only shortcomings are how inconsistently they appear.

The novel “echoes across centuries and cultures,” as the blurb on the back states, in a more indirect sense than most will expect, and that was the best part of the entire story. It’s not a novel that strives to teach its reader something, to chastise the past, or even to weave an entirely compelling story. One must let the story’s natural course exert its power, which it possesses a great deal of, to grow attached to Jónas.

It’s a book that serves as a character study through the eyes of the culture and environment that surrounds him. The elements of magical realism, especially the very last scene in which a younger Jónas is willingly consumed by a whale, can be taken literally in the sense that they add a touch of excitement to the story. Another interpretation is as signs of how the human mind doesn’t always know what’s real.

Unusual and memorable, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is worth a read not only to delve into the aforementioned world of the unusual, but also to experience the literature of a culture that isn’t dominate in the current literary market, at least in North America. The writing style is refreshing and full of risk-taking, and whether you love or hate the book after finishing, it will leave a memorable, lasting impression.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Fairy Tales and Flesh Eaters: A Closer Look At Rosamund Hodge’s Crimson Bound

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image source: rosamundhodge.net

 “I don’t recall hearing that any of the damned were content.”

“They’re content to stay in their sins.”

Young adult fiction is one genre that falls prey to the nonstop conveyor belt of the publishing industry—an industry which has arguably grown more focused on churning out books that sell rather than selecting books with “quality” writing.

It has also been heavily dominated by phases of popular subject matter which come and go over the years—we’ve luckily been more or less freed from the vampires and werewolves of ten years ago. Fairy tale retellings, on the other hand, seem to be the latest “in”.

Most tend to play it safe with the more traditional, hence very over-written, stories of Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Some, like A Whole New World by Liz Braswell, read more like fanfiction. And some, like the forthcoming Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, have realized that perhaps Western fairy tales are too familiar and boring to today’s readers, and have (finally) decided to expand further into new territory. Vassa, in particular, looks toward Russia and the folktale of Vassilissa the Beautiful for inspiration.

But we’re not here today to talk about Liz Braswell, or even Sarah Porter.

Instead, let’s take a glimpse of Rosamund Hodge.

Despite Hodge’s books being amongst the aforementioned fairy tale retellings, Hodge brings a much darker spin to them. She takes only the most basic and familiar pieces of the original folklore to form the spinal chord of her novels. The remaining bones are artificially grown yet organically attached, taking inspiration and ideas from various other sources, more specifically French culture and Greek and pagan mythology.

Hodge’s debut novel Cruel Beauty, published in 2014, is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” The novel received relatively high praise and established her as a writer who, although may be playing it a bit safe with subject matter, is nonetheless trying to bring something new to the table. Her latest novel, Crimson Bound, strove to continue this streak of success. As ratings have demonstrated however, that didn’t necessarily end up being the case.

Although it has a similar style to its predecessor, Crimson Bound is a standalone that also includes French names and aspects of the culture, as well as some demon-like creatures, but beyond that it is much darker and hungrier. It’s a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”, but the only things it really takes from the story are the “don’t talk to strangers”/“don’t stray from the path” mantra, as well as a short line in the end with the familiar “the better to ___ you with”.

Rachelle lives and trains with her aunt to become the next woodwife, charged with weaving charms and protecting humans from the Great Forest. The forest is ruled by a terrible creature called the Devourer which frequently unleashes waves of nasty creatures called woodspawns. All changes when one day, while walking through the forest, she encounters a forestborn, a creature that is no longer human, which has killed in order to stay alive and is now a servant of the Devourer.

Despite her aunt’s warnings, Rachelle talks to the forestborn, developing a trust for him and falling pray to his lies. She ends up marked by him and faced with an impossible decision: either kill someone and become a bloodbound, tied to the Great Forest and doomed to become a forestborn herself, or refuse and die in three days. Choosing the former and killing her aunt, she travels to Rocadamour and joins the King’s bloodbounds, assassins responsible not only for ridding the kingdom of woodspawn but also eliminating the king’s enemies.

If the above summary has managed to confuse you then don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The world-building of the book veers from simple to complex and back.

The main problem is with the initial setup itself. It takes several chapters to gain a full grasp of the terms “woodwife”, “woodspawn”, “bloodbound”, and “forestborn”, and even then it is only a couple of them that receive a good amount of attention and explanation. It eventually made me wish more time was spent on explaining just what the Great Forest and the Devourer were, as opposed to presenting both as bad and then stating that it was only the Devourer who was bad, and now that he was eliminated the Great Forest could be the way it once was ages ago.

The characters were the ultimate driving force of the story, particularly the heroine Rachelle. While some retellings portray Red Riding Hood as very badass and fearless, Rachelle spends much of the story either telling herself or other characters about how she’s a monster who deserves to die, and that she cannot ever be forgiven.

For some people, such a self-deprecating character can be off-putting, and in the past I have frequently struggled with female characters who constantly put themselves down for not being pretty enough or strong enough. With Rachelle however, there was something genuine in her words. Perhaps it’s because I could relate to her self-criticisms (though I luckily haven’t encountered any forestborn or curses). She was easy to sympathize with, and for people who see themselves in her, empathy was equally natural.

Just like most YA novels, Crimson Bound didn’t escape the familiar convention of the love triangle. Much to my surprise, this triangle wasn’t equilateral like in most books – in fact, it frequently lost its “triangle-ness” throughout the novel. The two love interests, Erec and Armand, were complex and fully developed, and just as filled with dark thoughts and struggles as Rachelle and the rest of the fictional kingdom. An added bonus was the fact that Armand was the first male love interest I ever encountered in a YA novel who didn’t have hands, making for a much less idealized story. It would be difficult to describe both of them without giving too many spoilers away, and I will leave that for any curious reader to discover for themselves should they choose to pick up the book.

The one issue I had was a small thread Hodge left dangling: the character of Amelie, a girl who Rachelle saved from the woodspawn and an aspiring cosmetician (another somewhat unusual feature in a fantasy novel). Despite clearly repeating how Rachelle loved Amelie as a friend, I couldn’t help but wish that Hodge had actually turned that into a romance instead. The chemistry between them felt right, as opposed to the one between Rachelle and Armand, which took me time to warm up towards. However, this is one small disappointment which I hope novels of the future will address, and that fairy tale retellings of the future won’t shy away from queer relationships.

Another interesting touch to the story is the myth of Tyr and Zisa, a brother and sister who faced the Devourer with two legendary swords. Their story is told in a very Grimm-like fashion, especially in a scene where Zisa goes to a blacksmith and asks him to make swords out of two bones and is told that she must pay twice, and with her body, in order for him to fulfill her request.

Weaknesses aside, the novel gives some hope to the genre being a much more, dare I say, realistic rendition of a fairy tale spin-off, and proves that even retellings can have various degrees of originality to them. It will particularly appeal to readers like myself who remember the fascination of reading the original, uncensored Brothers Grimm fairy tales before bed, and the bloodthirsty, childish delight of loving every dark and twisted moment of them.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko